Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

The author says the outlook for income equality was brighter under President Johnson. (Photo: AP)

The author says the outlook for income equality was brighter under President Johnson. (Photo: AP)

America's Yawning Racial Wealth Gap

The top 20 percent of Americans earn 50.2 percent of the income, while the bottom 20 percent earns just 3.3 percent

Ben Jealous

This August marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Best remembered for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the march served as a catalyst for national action on poverty and economic injustice. Though we have seen progress since 1963, the economic component of King’s civil rights agenda remains very much unfinished. Today, the gaping economic disparities between the rich and the rest in the United States are even more pronounced for African-Americans.

Since the 1980s, as inequality has increased dramatically in the United States, there has been a steady increase in the racial wealth divide. Before the Great Recession, middle- and high-income African-Americans saw their levels of wealth stagnate or decrease, while middle- and high-income whites their wealth increase over the last 30 years. Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, the gap has only widened. On average, white families have more than $113,000 in wealth, whereas African-Americans have an average of less than $5,700.

Things looked much more hopeful half a century ago. A year after the March on Washington, President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society initiative, which included civil rights, voting rights, and the “War on Poverty.” The Johnson administration and Congress worked to reduce poverty and economic inequities by putting progressive policies in place, raising the minimum wage, and expanding access to health insurance and housing for the poor and elderly.

Just six years later, the progress was striking. By 1970, the poverty rate was at the lowest level ever recorded — down to 12 percent of the population, from 20 percent. Black poverty declined from 55 percent to 27 percent, and African-Americans’ median family income increased by 53 percent.

Yet, after these great successes of the 1960s, the last 40 years have been disappointing in reducing poverty in communities of color. According to the National Poverty Center, in 2010, the African-American poverty rate was 27 percent, and the national poverty rate has increased to 15 percent. More than one fifth of the nation’s children – and a full third of African-American children – live in poverty.

What went wrong? From “trickle-down” economics to discriminatory homeownership policies to predatory lending practices, policies have been implemented that hurt the middle class and the working poor, especially in minority communities. The top 20 percent of Americans earn 50.2 percent of the income, while the bottom 20 percent earns just 3.3 percent. And people of color are still very much on the losing side of this divide.

Growing economic inequality is even more pronounced when it comes to wealth. While income determines the stream of money a household uses for day-to-day living, wealth — accumulated savings and other assets minus debts — determines how well families are able to survive a layoff or a medical emergency. Wealth also determines how easily families are able to invest in college tuition or a down payment on a house — important steps up the economic ladder. Wealth is also vital for retirement security and to pass on to children and grandchildren to help them succeed.

We can fix this. As King put it, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

There are steps we can take now to start to close the wealth gap. We need to hold banks accountable for predatory lending, and demand that corporations implement diverse hiring practices. We need to educate on these issues and reach out to local community groups to call attention to racial and economic injustice. And most importantly, we need to develop the will among our lawmakers and employers to take strong action to bridge racial economic inequality.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ben Jealous

Ben Jealous

Ben Jealous is former president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. He is the 2018 Democratic nominee for Governor of Maryland.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Median Pay of Top CEOs Hits Record $14.7 Million as Workers Strike Over Starvation Wages

"While most of America struggles to put gas in the tank and pay the grocery bills, price-gouging, excessive-profit-taking CEOs used their captive boards to award themselves record pay," said one expert.

Jake Johnson ·


Sanders: Manchin and Sinema 'Sabotaged' Biden Agenda Because They Lack 'Guts'

"Why don't you have the guts to take on the drug companies and the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry?" the Vermont senator asked.

Jake Johnson ·


'Still on Track to Win This Primary,' Says John Fetterman After Stroke

"The good news is I’m feeling much better," said Pennsylvania's progressive Lt. Governor, frontrunner in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. "I'm well on my way to a full recovery."

Jon Queally ·


Buffalo Gunman's Racism Directly Tied to Mainstreaming of White Nationalism, Say Critics

"This hateful, white nationalist rhetoric is not just being spread by lone gunmen. It can also be found on cable news and in the rhetoric of politicians today."

Jon Queally ·


'It's a Fight They'll Get': Defenders of Abortion Rights March Nationwide

One speaker at the Ban Off Our Bodies rally in the nation's capital said that Saturday was just "day one of a 'Summer of Rage' where we will be ungovernable. Ungovernable!"

Jon Queally ·

Common Dreams Logo